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Turkey drifting from the West towards Russia?

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In the years of the Cold War, Turkey positioned itself at the vanguard of the free, i.e. Western world, confronting the so-called “evil empire”. Many Turks, especially in the hinterland, truly believed that the words “communism” and “terrorism” meant the same, while newspapers wrote about the “oppressed” status of millions of Turks in the USSR. But everything changed at the end of the 20th century. The 1990s became a period of unprecedented growth in bilateral trade, as Turkish contractors rushed to tap into Russian expanses by erecting a variety of buildings of disputable architectural value. The collapse of the USSR gave rise to expectations of the arrival of a “Turkic century” and a “Turkic world from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.” According to many in Turkey, the Turkic-speaking people living in Russia were to occupy a place in this world too.

Gradually, the nationalist euphoria evaporated, and since the early 2000s, with the strengthening of the Russian statehood, Turkey has been building relations with Russia on the principles of practical gain and respect for the interests of its partner. Fortunately, moderate Muslim realists from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002.

During this period, Ankara’s foreign policy agenda underwent substantial changes. The AKP program proclaimed a new balance of strength and new foreign policy interests, although relations with the EU, NATO and the United States were still a priority. Nevertheless, the document emphasized the need to form friendly relations with Russia in the Central Asian and Caucasian regions and paid a lot of attention to relations with countries of Central Asia and the Middle East.

The current foreign policy doctrine has become multifaceted in contrast to Ataturk’s wish in favor of the country’s strategic orientation to the West. The years-long desire to integrate into the EU has faded into the background, as the main task now was to fulfil the idea of turning the country into a self-sufficient center of attraction by creating a powerful economy, addressing domestic political problems (primarily the Kurdish issue, which is not articulated but implied) and pursuing a constructive foreign policy. In the long run, the task was to turn Turkey into a world power. Simultaneously, there came a refusal to portray the country as a “bridge” between the East and the West – this definition was adopted by Turgut Ozal, the “architect of new Turkey”, in the 1980s. According to the current leadership, the image of a bridge secured for Turkey the status of a secondary player in international relations. Now the country appears to be a “central state” located in the heart of Eurasia and boasting multiple identities: after all, it belongs to both Europe and Asia, spreading to the Balkan, Caucasus, Middle East and Mediterranean regions. This dictates the need to pursue a multi-faceted foreign policy which does not provide for privileged relations with anyone.

In essence, these were the ideas of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009-2014) and Prime Minister (2014-2016) of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu, which he put forward in 2001 in the monograph “Strategic Depth”.

Davutoglu believed that by joining NATO, Turkey consented to play the role of a peripheral country in the Western world, having shortened the list of its interests within its close circle. Even so, the West denied Turkey integration, because it saw Ankara as a centuries-old rival. In this regard, the Davutoglu concept focuses on the link between present-day politics and the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire. His “neo-Ottomanism” implied reconstruction of a new form of empire on a qualitatively different level, which is not so much as direct integration of countries that once belonged to the Ottoman state, as rather the strengthening of its economic, cultural and political influence throughout Pax Ottomana.

Another fundamental idea proclaimed by the then university professor was the principle of “zero problems with neighbors”, which implies the highest possible level of political and economic cooperation with neighboring states. Among these, in his opinion, were countries that are not directly bordering Turkey, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.

Incidentally, the later problems in relations with Yerevan, Athens, Nicosia, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Riyadh, and to some extent, with Baghdad, demonstrated the complexity of the “zero problems” paradigm, in contrast to the principle of neo-Ottomanism, which is excluded from Ankara’s foreign policy vocabulary but is still being translated into life.

Whatever the case, it can be assumed that present-day Turkey sees itself as a multi-regional leader but without any foreign policy preferences.

In the course of the implementation of this policy, it turned out that for pursuing “active and multi-faceted” policy the country lacked economic and political resources. This became particularly visible in the Syrian direction. Thus, cooperatioin with Russia, based on a powerful economic foundation, became for Ankara not just a choice, but a need. Moreover, it is obvious that the priorities were set before the Syrian crisis: back in 2010, Ahmet Davutoglu wrote in an article for “Russia in Global Affairs”: “We consider Russia an invaluable partner, an important world power and a key player in terms of regional cooperation. I would like to emphasize that further development of cooperation based on common interest of the two parties, mutual trust and transparency is one of the top priorities of our foreign policy … We are set on addressing the same international problems, we understand each other and try to bypass “sore points” which could provoke irritation. We would like to continue a sincere and open dialogue with Russia on further development of our region. ”Notably, political rapprochement was facilitated by the similarity of the national mentalities of the two countries or, rather, by their difference from the “western” mentality.

The “axial time” in Russian-Turkish relations was the period 2015-2016. While NATO allies chose to keep aloof following the incident with the Russian plane, Moscow chose to support Ankara, by not only restoring the old relations, but also by developing them to the level of a truly strategic partnership. Soon afterwards came an attempt of a military coup, which almost cost the Turkish leader his life. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suspecting that Washington was doing more than just watching the military insurgency from the outside, appreciated the sincere and constructive position of the Russian leadership.

At present, bilateral cooperation hinges on active trade and economic relations. Projects such as Akkuyu NPP and Turkish Stream have all the potential to link the two countries’ economies for years ahead. Moreover, they have a political component.

Statements that are often heard in the Turkish expert community maintain that both countries pursue their own national interests, which coincide but only partially. This is true. Some experts also say that where the interests coincide, Turkey and Russia act together, where they clash, both countries “isolate” each other, trying not to spoil relations. Besides, Turkey is trying to use the United States as a counterweight to Russia and vice versa.

In big politics, there are no simple solutions, and for Ankara multi-facetedness remains a challenge. Therefore, there is no need to equate the trend towards Turkey’s distancing itself from the West with a drift only towards Moscow.

The main thing to be taken into consideration is that Russia’s role in the entire spectrum of Turkish foreign policy priorioties is acquiring ever more importance. Both countries are demonstrating the ability to compromise even on issues of particular concern, such as the situation in Idlib. Even though many Western analysts view the Russian-Turkish rapprochement as situational and time-serving, Russia is demonstrating ever more trustworthiness, if not as an absolute ally, then as a reliable partner in all areas. And the fact that cooperation with Russia is economically beneficial becomes for Turkey a reality perceived through experience. From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations

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Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.

Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.

Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.

How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.

Consider three recent instances.

First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.

Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”

Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.

Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.

Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.

Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.

For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.

In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.

Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.

Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.

In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”

Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.

These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.

The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.

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Middle East

China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate

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By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control.

The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment.

It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed security architecture of which China would have to be part.

Messrs. Sun and Wu’s article, published in a prominent Chine policy journal, was part of a subtle and cautious Chinese messaging that was directed towards players on all sides of the Middle East’s multiple divides.

To be clear, China, like Russia, is not seeking to replace the United States, certainly not in military terms, as a dominant force in the Middle East. Rather, it is gradually laying the groundwork to capitalize on a US desire to rejigger its regional commitments by exploiting US efforts to share the burden more broadly with its regional partners and allies.

China is further suggesting that the United States has proven to be unable to manage the Middle East’s myriad conflicts and disputes, making it a Chinese interest to help steer the region into calmer waters while retaining the US military as the backbone of whatever restructured security architecture emerges.

Implicit in the message is the assumption that the Middle East may be one part of the world in which the United States and China can simultaneously cooperate and compete; cooperate in maintaining regional security and compete on issues like technology.

That may prove to be an idealized vision. China, like the United States, is more likely to discover that getting from A to B can be torturous and that avoiding being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts is easier said than done.

China has long prided itself on its ability to maintain good relations with all sides of the divide by avoiding engagement in the crux of the Middle East’s at times existential divides.

Yet, building a sustainable security architecture that includes conflict management mechanisms, without tackling the core of those divides, is likely to prove all but impossible. The real question is at what point does China feel that the cost of non-engagement outweighs the cost of engagement?

The Middle East is nowhere close to entertaining the kind of approaches and policies required to construct an inclusive security architecture. Nevertheless, changes to US policy being adopted by the Biden administration are producing cracks in the posture of various Middle Eastern states, albeit tiny ones, that bolster the Chinese messaging.

Various belligerents, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, but not Iran or Israel, at least when it comes to issues like Iran and the Palestinians, have sought to lower the region’s temperature even if fundamentals have not changed.

A potential revival of the 2015 international Iran nuclear agreement could provide a monkey wrench.

There is little doubt that any US-Iranian agreement to do so would focus exclusively on nuclear issues and would not include other agenda points such as ballistic missiles and Iranian support for non-state actors in parts of the Middle East. The silver lining is that ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors are issues that Iran would likely discuss if they were embedded in a discussion about restructured regional security arrangements.

This is where China may have a significant contribution to make. Getting all parties to agree to discuss a broader, more inclusive security arrangement involves not just cajoling but also assuaging fears, including whether and to what degree Chinese relations with an Iran unfettered by US sanctions and international isolation would affect Gulf states.

To be sure, while China has much going for it in the Middle East such as its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, its affinity for autocracy, and its economic weight and emphasis on economic issues, it also needs to manage pitfalls. These include reputational issues despite its vaccine diplomacy, repression of the Uyghurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and discrimination against other Muslim communities.

China’s anti-Muslim policies may not be an immediate issue for much of the Muslim world, but they continuously loom as a potential grey swan.

Nevertheless, China, beyond doubt, alongside the United States can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The question is whether both Beijing and Washington can and will step up to the plate.

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Middle East

The US doesn’t deserve a sit on the UNHRC, with its complicity in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen

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A family in the Al Dhale'e camp for people displaced by the conflict in Yemen. YPN for UNOCHA

Last week, the US State Department communicated its intention of joining the UN Human Rights Council later this year. The UN General Assembly will be voting this October on who gets to join the 47-member UN Human Rights Council. 47 members is less than a fourth of all UN member states, so only very few countries get a seat and a say.

The United States does not deserve to join the UN Human Rights Council, with its complicity in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

The Human Rights Council is often criticized, especially by the right in the US, for having only bad human rights actors with atrocious records as members. But the US is not an exception to the atrocious human rights record club. 

In the seemingly war-less Trump period, the US nevertheless still managed to get engaged in war and war crimes in the completely devastated Yemen, which was hit by the worst humanitarian crisis and famine over the last years, after US-backed Saudi forces basically flattened the country. Over 13mln people suffered from starvation. Media and human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch alike have pointed to US complicity in war crimes in Yemen.

Months ago, I criticized UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore for lauding the Saudis’ “humanitarian leadership” in Yemen for the price of USD 150mln. The UN blue-washing partnerships were possible after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres removed Saudi Arabia from the UN blacklist in 2020 to make sure the rivers of cash by the Saudi humanitarian heroes kept flowing in the UN’s direction. But in October this year, it is not Antonio-it’s not a big deal-Guterres that decides who gets on the UN Human Rights Council. It’s all the UN member states. And many of them will not be impressed by the Saudi humanitarian leadership.

And even though a month ago, new US President Joe Biden announced that the US is ending its support for the Saudi offensive – and in parallel the US intell revealed the Khashoggi report which outlined the Saudi prince’s involvement in the murder of the journalist – questions still persist about the US role in the Yemeni situation from now on. 73% of all Saudi arms imports come from the US. The US State Department will simply be playing on words from now on in redefining what constitutes “offensive” support for the Saudi coalition, as the State Department Spokesperson Ned Price seemed to suggest. Any military expert knows how difficult it is to differentiate between offensive and defensive capabilities. Unless it’s really barb wire standing on your border, it’s pretty hard to make the case that something will serve for only defensive purposes. Especially if the “defense-only” capabilities are for a war-driven Saudi-led coalition. So, basically the Biden policy is the Trump policy, but much more polished. The language is more technocraticly elegant, but the essence is the same – just like many of the other decisions by the Biden Administration in its first weeks. It’s basically Trump, only the phrasing is much more polished and professionally shrewd.

This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Yemen’s Houthies for breaking the peace in responding to the Saudi forces, but it is safe to say that there isn’t much peace to break in Yemen, and the US has also taken care of that. So, Blinken’s statement reveals a new doze of hypocrisy – hypocrisy, which also characterizes the US’s decision to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council.

Biden’s Syria strikes that left many Biden supporters quite surprised last week also indicated that many of us who thought Biden would be a classical Democrat centrist were actually wrong. Biden has much more in common with the right now, judging by his very first policy choices – at home and foreign policy wise.

The US government will have to try a bit harder than “we are not Trump”, if it wants to convince the rest of the countries in October that it deserves a sit on the human rights table. If the Biden Administration continues the same way, it’s not going to be able to do so.

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